On a recent trip to the US from Israel, I ran into a problem. The house my family was renting was situated just half a block inside the eruv and we needed to figure out how to get around with the baby stroller on Shabbat. So I did what most people would do and called the local Orthodox rabbi. The rabbi was welcoming, asked a few questions, and explained where the eruv was situated and how to stay within its parameters. He told me to stay on the right side of the power/eruv lines and said we’d be okay.
But we weren’t. On Friday night, as I tried to make my way down that street, two things went wrong. One, the eruv-enclosed sidewalk with its protruding tree roots and uneven tiles was practically unpassable for a stroller. And two, with electric lines running over the middle of the walkway in some areas of the street, there was enough room for a person to walk on the right side of the eruv, but not enough to push a stroller there. There I was, walking in an unfamiliar place with a bunch of kids, struggling to navigate the sidewalk, all the while worrying that I was mechalel Shabbat because my stroller was not on the right side of the power lines.
This experience is a classic case of the malfunctions that happen when the people who design a system are not the same people who use it. And I am not talking about the God-given Torah. This is pure sociology.
While the rabbi was caring, sympathetic and knowledgeable, his experience of getting from place to place consisted of walking. He probably hadn’t pushed a stroller in a very long time. When he (and the eruv committee) tested the eruv, they probably walked along the sidewalk and found it to be satisfactory. But not being used to pushing strollers (or wheelchairs) they didn’t know what they didn’t know about some of the people who would be using the eruv. And in advising me, the rabbi did not think to look at a different experience.
And for many women in the Orthodox community, it is precisely these unintentional yet frustrating logistical failures that make them feel unwelcome. Synagogue programs without a babysitting service, scheduling that is not sensitive to mothers’ time constraints, visually limited seating and subpar air conditioning are just a few common examples. These issues are not halachic and present no religious challenge. Rather, these are prosaic planning, design and programming failures. Yet they dampen women’s feelings about their communities and religion, often serving as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
For a product, a service or a community to meet the needs of the user, they need to be designed with that user in mind. Yet since women rarely participate in Orthodox synagogue and community management, their needs often go unmet simply for lack of awareness. Women’s representation and input are all that is required.
Creating this kind of representation and building systems for drawing women’s input will be one issue on the agenda for Dr. Adina Shmidman, the OU’s newly appointed director of women’s initiatives. Thankfully for her, the marketing profession developed the transferable tools for including women in service design over a decade ago. From benchmarking the female-friendliness of a service, to research tools for analyzing the needs of a particular demographic, to communication techniques best suited for getting the message to women, the business know-how used by companies around the world can be put to use by shul administrators everywhere.
The second part of making Orthodoxy more women-friendly is trickier, though. Even with the logistics addressed, women, especially Modern Orthodox women, seek to find both a challenge and meaning in their religion. Over the years, I have been asked by some rabbis what women are lacking. Some were incredulous that the Shabbat shiurim, the tehillim groups and the bikur cholim projects were not enough.
Here, surprisingly, American Orthodoxy can look to Israel for the answer. Although the design and the programming of most Israeli Orthodox shuls are less women-friendly (youth groups and Shabbat morning babysitting are practically unheard of), Israeli Orthodox women have managed to both develop leadership and find meaning indirectly by addressing pressing community issues. And it’s not just due to the better advanced-learning options.
The most veteran example is that of toanot rabaniyot. Women’s need for a female listening ear, tzniut and more sensitive representation before the batei din in divorce cases led Nurit Fried to launch the first such training program for women almost 30 years ago. Although her initial efforts to introduce women into the otherwise all-male field were met with opposition, female representatives have since quickly won popularity.
Besides improving the quality of legal representation for women, the move also created a cadre of highly educated and articulate female leaders and role models, serving in halachically permissible roles.
Rebbetzin Dana and Rabbi Ohad Tirosh used an entirely different model for infusing women’s religious life with inspiration at the Binyan Shalem Center for Family Studies. Instead of training a select few leaders, this organization pioneered Orthodox women’s conferences. Over the past 20 years, Binyan Shalem’s annual summer convention has become a staple in many frum women’s calendars. With a couple of dozens tracks focusing on every conceivable issue pertinent to women’s religious and family lives, the conference packs some 10,000 women each year into the country’s biggest convention hall in Binyanei Hauma.
Women come to the conference to get fresh perspectives, enjoy Jewish music and theater and bond with friends. Yet many report that the unifying force of joining in with thousands of like-minded women and the normalization of otherwise personal issues provide an energy boost and dissipate some of the isolation felt by so many.
The conference model has been so successful, at least half a dozen other institutions have copied the initiative, each with its unique flavor and more specific female audience.
Binyan Shalem follows up on its central events with a nationwide network of classes and workshops on the different aspects of family relations and spiritual growth, making learning and development tools available closer to home.
Finally moving over to the charedi community, women-led and operated Mishmeret Hashalom has brought together over 80,000 Israeli women in learning the laws of proper speech and promoting effective non-confrontational communications. Launched by Rebbetzin Shira Wartzburg, the organization takes a grassroots approach by searching out representatives in each building, who in turn bring the neighbors together for monthly Keechad events in someone’s apartment, distribute educational materials and encourage women to join in chevruta learning of hilchot shmirat halashon.
The program is ingenious in that it relies on existing social ties, while enhancing the comradery among neighbors. The immediate proximity to home, coupled with varied educational content, makes the program accessible to women with different intellectual pursuits and at all life stages. At the same time, natural community leaders emerge, who are further encouraged to expand their work with designated leader-training pamphlets and meet-ups.
As the American Orthodox community searches for new, more satisfying, yet halachically acceptable participation models and leadership roles for its women, it doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Available business resources coupled with decades of Israeli experience suggest that women-led initiatives that focus on existing pressing issues and taking into account women’s needs and lifestyles have the greatest chance of making the desired impact.
By Leah Aharoni